Let me tell you something about cats.
But first let’s talk about rats. (Stay with me here.)
An animal pyschologist named Glen Jensen did a study back in the 1960s using rats, where he gave the rats a choice between “working” for their food — pressing a lever — and having their food (the same kind of food) freely provided to them from a nearby dish.
The results were surprising. The previous thinking had been that animals would go for the freebie — in other words, that they’d want to maximize reward over effort.
But this new study showed the opposite!
Of the 200 rats, 199 of them wanted to work, at least a little, for their food, rather than being total freeloaders. Jensen, the proud researcher, called this phenomenon contrafreeloading.
A string of later studies by an assortment of researchers found similar results repeated time after time in other animals, from rats and gerbils to starlings and pigeons to monkeys, chimps and dogs.
As long as they didn’t have to work too hard, the majority of animals in all these studies wanted to EARN their meal.
Contrafreeloading is one of the reasons dogs are so easy to train. It’s not the treat you’re giving them that they want; they also want to work for that treat.
Still with me? Okay, here’s the part about cats.
The One Exception to the Studies
There was one animal, out of all the animals observed over the years, that would decline to work for food practically every time free food was also an option. This animal, in other words, is a total freeloader.
That’s right, the one exception — the one freeloader — was the domestic cat.
It turns out that cats, unlike all other animals, would rather NOT work for their food if you’re freely giving identical food to them so that it requires no effort on their part. That was the conclusion of a study by Kenneth Koffer and Grant Coulson, as reported in Psychonomic Science in 1971.
The authors of the study called this “feline indolence.”
“Indolence” — another word for lazy — is an interesting way of putting this. But I’ve drawn a different conclusion.
You want to know what I call it? Certainly not laziness.
I call it SMART.
Duke University professor Dan Ariely, author of Predictably Irrational and The Upside of Irrantionality, agrees. “From all the animals that have been tested, there’s one animal that…never works for food when it has access to free food, and that’s the cat, the common household cat,” Ariely says. “So you could say that’s the only perfectly rational animal.”
In other words, why work when you don’t have to? Sounds perfectly rational to me, too, at least from a cat’s perspective.
Well played, cats. Well played.
- Forbes: Excerpt from The Upside of Irrationality, by Dan Ariely
- Glen Jensen, “Preference for Bar Pressing over ‘Freeloading’ as a Function of Number of Unrewarded Presses,” Journal of Experimental Psychology Vol 65(5), 1963
- Koffer, Kenneth; Coulson, Grant, “Feline indolence: Cats prefer free to response-produced food,” Psychonomic Science, Vol 24(1), 1971
- Social Triggers: Why people buy what they can get for free